UK & World News
Ash Dieback Threat May Be Worse Than Feared
A deadly fungal disease that threatens to devastate the UK's native ash trees has been discovered in six new counties.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the chalara fraxinea fungus, which causes leaf loss and crown dieback and can lead to tree death, has now been found in 115 sites.
New cases of ash dieback have been confirmed in Sussex, Berkshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Bedfordshire and Northumberland - in addition to Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Essex where it had already been identified in the countryside.
These include 61 cases in the wider countryside, 39 planting areas and 15 tree nurseries - a total of 115 sites in all.
Officials asserted the fresh discoveries did not mean the disease was spreading rapidly, but that it was likely to have been present in these areas for a number of years, originally caused by spores blown in from mainland Europe.
The results of the intensive survey of 1,000 sites by the Forestry Commission over the weekend come as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson held a summit on Wednesday with representatives of industry, conservation groups and experts to discuss the problem.
Mr Paterson said: "This is a real long-term problem. It's made its way across Europe, it now looks as though it's blown in here, but by identifying genetic strains that work, by identifying particular trees that can resist and by doing real research on this, I am determined that in the long term we can find a solution."
The Chalara fraxinea fungus has already wiped out 90% of ash trees in Denmark in seven years and is becoming widespread throughout central Europe.
There are fears that the UK's ash trees are facing a similar fate to its elms, which were destroyed by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.
A huge public response to mobile phone app AshTag, which has been collating pictures of possible sightings of the tree disease, could push the number of confirmed cases even higher.
AshTag has told Sky News that around 400 images have been posted on the app so far, but the number is "increasing all of the time".
Photographs have been submitted from across the UK, and its experts have identified "likely areas" - sightings which appear to show symptoms indicative of the disease - in Shropshire, Leicestershire, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Surrey.
Some 27 images have been referred to the Forestry Commission for further investigation to verify whether they are confirmed cases of ash dieback or not.
The Government has been accused of dragging its feet over the issue, but ministers insist they are taking the problem seriously and have brought in a ban on imports of ash trees and set up a task force to tackle the issue.
Mr Paterson, who convened a Cobra crisis committee last Friday to examine the latest developments and co-ordinate action, has also been holding meetings twice daily to discuss the problem with experts.
But Labour says the Government has responded too slowly, after it emerged in a written answer ministers had been told about the presence of ash dieback in the UK in April.
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said: "Ministers were told about the presence of ash dieback in the country on April 3 yet waited till October 29 to ban ash imports.
"This seven-month delay is a tragic example of the appalling incompetence and inertia which is a hallmark of this Government.
"Scientists tell us the disease loves wet conditions and spreads from June to October but Ministers failed to get a ban in place over the summer months.
"We have had the wettest summer on record and I fear, have lost a year in our fight against this terrible disease."
The Woodland Trust, which attended Wednesday's summit on ash dieback, unveiled a three-point plan to tackle tree disease, which includes implementing a project to bring scientists and the public together to monitor the UK's trees and woods.
Woodland Trust chief executive Sue Holden said: "We are committed to tackling the growing threat of all tree pests and diseases in the UK and, by publishing this plan, we will continue to lead the fight for the future of our trees and woods.
"We also will fight to ensure that greater priority is given to trees and woods by Government."
Ash trees make up around 30% of the UK's wooded landscape.